“Here, take it.”
The lady with the bouffant hairstyle, porcelain skin and pink lips rifled through a jewelry box at a generously mirrored vanity, and held out a sterling silver necklace.
“I want you to have it. In case anything happens to me, it will stay in the family.”
She couldn’t have been more than 55 years old, just past the healthy coming-off point from menopause, but her words made it sound like she was planning for some unthinkable future event. Little did she know, in only ten years, she wouldn’t remember giving me this jewelry. And, sadly, she wouldn’t remember the girl to whom she gifted it.
That day she was in her bathrobe and hadn’t yet “put on her face,” although it was already noon. (This tendency to linger peacefully throughout the morning would be a schedule my own mother would adopt for many years in the future.) But she still seemed as beautiful as I would ever remember her.
That precious moment was one of many in a succession of years that now blend into one brief climax of my childhood. Every young girl loves her grandmother, but mine was extraordinary. Mine was young and still quite beautiful. (When I was five, she was merely 48, an age that my mother has now passed.) She was generous, carefree and fun to be around.
My grandma was special.
This one memory stands alone, yet is accompanied by hundreds more just like it. Recently, I spoke with a close friend about his grandfather’s recent death and he expressed his dilemma regarding having to choose just one story to share at the memorial service. “There are just so many,” he lamented. This is exactly my predicament, as I look through her old scarves and think back to the days when we dug through her 70s era muumuus and I excitedly took home finds from her multiple closets.
These glimpses into the past are bittersweet: they simultaneously trigger sadness and joy. And, although I felt I knew her quite well, there are times when I think I never really understood her at all. I only knew the way the sun shone through her westerly windows and how the transistor radio often fizzled and cracked as the local policemen and firefighters responded to local disturbances. There was no better place on earth.
Now that I am an adult and know better, there was nothing significant about that house on Jefferson with the large pine trees out front, but in my mind, it was the most magical place in the universe. Even the orange and lime green shag carpet intrigued me.
Their place was a playland where my silly childhood dreams and projects came to fruition. Coloring books and art projects were often spread about that chocolate-brown bar counter top, and I realize now, imagining my own future children, that my presence must have brought much joy to my grandmother’s mornings, as she prepared two-eggs (over-easy) and oatmeal for my grandfather before he headed off to work. I had nothing of a bedtime or a limit on the sheer quantity of cookies I could consume—Grandma, for being my mother’s mother, was surprisingly lenient. Satellite TV often blared in the basement until the wee morning hours while I slept on their itchy, brown polyester couch (made comfortable by a colorful afghan she would wrap around me when the cookie coma set in).
When I would visit my grandparents’ Blackfoot home, I often stayed in the tiny bedroom that used to house her art studio, preferring the crowded space with its twin bed, yellow bedspread and dusty knick knacks to the spacious room just down the hall, the one that had been painstakingly prepared for me.
Even then, I displayed signs of a burgeoning artist.
The dozens of canvases, still stacked against one another and leaned up against the walls, were unframed, although a finishing flourish had rendered them “C.Rovig.” These paintings had collected dust for twenty years or more, while poster prints and others’ art hung throughout the expansive home. On the table, once apparently used as a painting table, sat a small easel. It held a painting still in the stages of discovery. A buck stood, startled at my presence, hidden—or so he thought—among the aspen trees of my grandmother’s imagination. A stream ran through the center of the painting and faded in the distance, uncertainly painted onto the once-pristine canvas. I used to gaze at this painting enamored, wondering how such a scene could come to be.
I remember staring at the unfinished paintings, my head not much higher than the oak table’s surface. I always assumed this particular piece was unfinished because it always rested there on that easel, paint tubes haphazardly cast to the side, whenever I came to visit. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t spend hours in that room, as I imagined she once did. She stepped down the creaky stairs often, descending into the cold basement, but rarely turning to her right when at the intersection in the hallway. She always went left, going to retrieve a basket of freshly washed and dried clothes and towels. The light would flick off and she would stop in to see what new projects I was dreaming up.
Sometimes at these candid moments I would ask her why she didn’t paint anymore, and she would seem to bristle ever so slightly—the way only a child subconsciously perceives so that he or she can acknowledge it decades later—and would say, “Oh, sweetie. There’s not enough time in the day to do everything I’d like to do.” Though I know the sobering truth of these words as I try to make time for my own creative endeavors, I should have noticed the discomfort in her voice. But I was a child and could not be made to understand these subtleties, so I often asked the same question, thinking innocently—while somewhat connivingly—that I would eventually convince her to pick up her paintbrush once more.
So much potential and so many beautiful pictures were alive in that room. Those wood paneled walls seemed to soak up her inspiration, holding it like a sponge until someone would come along and wring it out, enjoying every last drop of her creativity. I would be that someone, maybe the only someone, that would appreciate the magic of that room. It was the smallest in the house, just about as small as many modern closets, but it was my favorite room. It was also the most crowded. A bed, to the right, sat low to the floor, bordered by a massive curio cabinet at the head, and the studio desk and boxes straight ahead were bumped right against the foot of the bed. To the left sat a low bookshelf that held odd trinkets and figurines collected over the years—a Japanese doll that had its face drawn on by a my now-adult uncle, a ceramic white kitty that once held coins and now was empty and several 50s era items, including a small shoe made of green glass. She had evidently treasured these objects, but they were relegated to a room that was now hidden from view. These were all early signs that the art in her life was simultaneously loved and despised. Her creativity was simultaneously treasured and reviled.
But her creativity manifested itself in other ways. Everything Grandma touched became art—her décor, her meals, her clothing, and yes, even her face. She breathed a kind of quirky beauty into her surroundings, adorning her life with charming, sentimental touches that prevented her existence from being anything but ordinary. Six-foot-tall dried flower arrangements—from I know not where—towered over the living room’s sitting area, a permanent display of some kind gesture from eons ago.
And today, as I look at photos of Grandma, I see myself in her eyes. It is uncanny how similar we are. Her “not enough time in the day” comments, even the unfinished paintings were clues to the person I would become in my 20s. It’s little wonder my art studio space is filled with dozens of unfinished works, set aside for when I have enough time. I see so much of her in me—not only the creative bent, but the pack-rat tendencies, the inability to throw things away due to sentimentality, the silliness, the willingness to do anything for a laugh. Strangely enough, my mom almost named me Amber Colleen.
Grandma would do anything for a laugh, often trying to make a fool of herself; maybe this is why children took to her. I know I certainly did. In fact, this is the reason I look forward to getting my mail to this day. As a child, packages would arrive almost weekly, fat manilla envelopes full of comic strips, snipped from the daily newspaper, magazine clippings and letters—glitter adorned, sticker studded letters.
One of my most vivid memories is of us rollerskating through the cemetery where her mother, my great-grandmother, was buried. She was in her 50s, and she was careening down paved sidewalks with her preteen granddaughter. It was as if we were literally kicking up our wheeled heels, laughing at death in the face. Oddly enough, this is the very cemetery where her ashes will be buried today.
Even as her memory drifted slowly away and her hair grew wild and unkempt, I still saw her as the beautiful, spirited woman that must have flung paint in that cramped studio. I envisioned her waist-length hair swaying back and forth as her paintbrush connected woman with world. Now, too, my long ashy brown hair hangs over my shoulders as I rediscover the world she invented. I sit at my easel, hand in hand with the friend I call my canvas, hoping I will have the courage to finish, hoping I will never forget.
Mom cries about her loss often, wishing to hold on to the past. But all we can do is cherish the moments we shared with this enigma of a woman. We can close our eyes and hear her rhythmic brushstrokes as she created ephemeral scenes that oozed with her fantasies. We can run our amateur fingers over the tightly woven threads of her canvases, and notice how the empty white of yesterday can be painted over with the sky blues and emerald greens of tomorrow.
As I and the ones I love the most say goodbye to this wonderful lady, there is no shortage of tears. But there is also laughter. Grandma would have wanted it that way. As we grieve, I refuse to weep for her death. I plan to rejoice over her life.
I’ll be the one leaving the grave site on roller skates.